Kiera holds the fort at the recent Big Saturday at Manchester Museum
The subject of last Saturday’s Big Saturday was travel, and with Kiera from the British Museum, who is with us on a placement at the moment, I showed some objects from Easter Island to the public. It was particularly appropriate to show material from Easter Island or Rapa Nui which must be the most isolated place on earth as part of the travel Big Saturday. As a useful map in John Flenley and Paul Bahn’s book The Enigmas of Easter Island Island on the Edge (Oxford University Press, 2002) shows, it is almost 3600 km from the coast of Chile on the South American mainland and 2092 km from Pitcairn, the nearest ‘neighbouring’ island: imagine popping round to the neighbours to borrow a cup of sugar! One of the Collections Team curatorial assistants went out to Easter Island as part of her holiday and kindly sent me some copies of photographs she took. Kate told me it took just over 5 hrs to get from Chile to Easter Island by plane.
Easter Island postcards (courtesy of Kate Sherburn)
Up to their necks in it: Easter Island statues (courtesy of Kate Sherburn)
Many of the visitors to the Big Saturday whom we talked to were familiar with the statues and they were thrilled to see some objects from Easter Island from the Museum’s Living Cultures collection. These were kindly made available by Stephen Welsh, Curator of Living Cultures. There are four obsidian mata’a or spearheads from the Charles Heape collection. Charles Heape (1848-1926) was businessman by background but because of his interests he became a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and of the Anthropological Institute. He collected implements and weapons and in May 1923 he donated his collection – said to be the most complete of its kind in existence – to Manchester Museum. It was said to be of supreme value not only to the University but to Ethnology students throughout the world. He collaborated with James Edge Partington, who had collected in the Pacific, to publish An Ethnographical Album of the Pacific Islands. Given their respective collecting interests and backgrounds it is hardly suprising that some Easter Island material came to Manchester Museum.
Obsidian mata’a from Easter Island (accession number 2425)
The mata’a look like very large barbed and tanged arrowheads (see image above). However, they are so big they cannot have been used as arrowheads or projectiles. They are much more likely to have been mounted as spearheads by means of the stem or tang. I initially thought the tips of these implements had been damaged and that was why they didn’t come to a point. It looks as though there is a great deal of variability in the shapes of the mata’a. Many writers have quoted George Forster who accompanied Captain Cook on his visit to Easter Island in 1774: ‘some…had lances or spears made of thin ill-shaped sticks and pointed with a sharp triangular piece of black glassy lava’. To some, the historical context for these weapons is the period of internecine warfare that followed the destruction of the island’s palm forest and ever-increasing competition between the different clans on the island for food and other resources. To others the collapse of traditional Easter Island or Rapa Nui culture did not come because of whole-scale degradation of the environment by chopping down the trees (what Jared Diamond refers to as ‘ecocide’) but because of the effects of contact with Europeans in the 18th century.
Obsidian mata’a from Easter Island
Some archaeologists, however, have questioned whether the mata’a are indeed weapons. Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo in The Statues that Walked Unraveling the Mystery of Easter Island (Free Press, 2011) questioned the evidence for a descent into violence and wrote that only a small proportion of prehistoric human skeletal remains from the island show evidence of trauma. Of the mata’a they write:
Obsidian mata’a from Easer Island
‘On Rapa Nui, it is often assumed that obsidian tools known as mata’a are evidence of lethal weapons. These are roughly triangular implements that have a stem chipped on one end for hafting to some kind of shaft. How lethal mata’a would have been, however, is open to debate. While the edges are sharp, their shape is not appropriate for piercing, and we should be cautious before concluding that they were used in warfare…they would have been remarkably poor tools for stabbing.’ They cite studies of microwear on the edges of the mata’a arguing they were used for the cutting and scraping of fibrous plant materials and quote an observation made by Cornelis Bouman, captain of one of the Dutch ships with Jacob Roggeveen in 1722, to the effect that the islanders cut ‘bananas with a sharp black stone’.
Obsidian mata’a from Easter Island
In their rebuttal of Hunt and Lipo’s assertion that the mata’a were agricultural implements Flenley, Butler and Bahn wrote that the obsidian objects were unlikely just to be tools because of their intricate hafting . They write that insufficient work has been done on micro-wear analysis and they ask why the mata’a turn up suddenly and in large numbers (sometimes in hoards) and quite late in the history of the occupation of the island. Although one skull had been pierced through by a single thrust of a spear, the relative paucity of evidence for injuries on human skeletons could be explained by the fact that fatal wounds inflicted on soft tissues would simply not survive archaeologically. The wounds mentioned in the Spanish accounts of the visit to Easter Island in 1770 are also relevant: ‘…in some we observed sundry wounds on the body, which we thought to have been inflicted by cutting instruments of iron or steel, we found that they proceeded from stones… and as most of these are sharp edged they produce the injury referred to’. This blog paragraph briefly summarises one of the sections in Flenley, Butler and Bahn’s ‘Respect versus contempt for evidence: Reply to Hunt and Lipo’ in Rapa Nui Journal (vol.21(2) October 2007, pp.98-104. Lethal weapon or banana chopper, it is up to you gentle readers…
Since writing this a few days ago I have read Grant McAll’s ‘European Impact on Easter Island: Response Recruitment and the Polynesian Experience in Peru’ in Journal of Pacific History 11.2 (1976), 90-105. In this article there is an account of the pursuit of a Peruvian slaver by an islander called Tori. Years later the Peruvian returned to Easter Island and offered gifts to his pursuer who had shouted to him to stand and fight. In the account it states ‘Tori could easily have thrown his mataa (spear) and have killed that young man, but he did not want to throw at the young man’s back.’ And Tori himself makes the following explanation: “I could easily have thrown my mataa at your back and have killed you but I didn’t want to’ and an intermediary repeats “He didin’t want to cut you with his mataa from behind. You would now be dead with his mataa. He didn’t wish to cut you from behind.”
In addition to the mata’a Kiera and I also showed a wooden figurine but as it is not clear whether or not this was made for the tourist market I do not discuss it here. We also showed some archive photographs of a journey in the Pacific undertaken by members of the Hudson family during the 1930s, of which this is one taken during their time on Easter Island:-
The Hudson party on Easter Island
I understand that visitors especially enjoyed seeing the ‘unusual objects from many years ago’ and were impressed by the ‘amount of activities on offer today’, to which the Easter Island table made its contribution. My thanks to Kiera for manning the fort whilst I went to see a Roman one at Castleshaw and to Vicki for planning and organising such a wonderful day.
This must be the only job in the world where you could attend a Druid ceremony at dawn to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the discovery of a bog body, show the public objects from Easter Island in the morning, and visit the excavation of a Roman fort in the afternoon…